Oh my, it certainly was colourful. Cars, buildings, people, history, full of surprises.
First stop Vinales, west of Havana, limestone hills thrusting out of the flat farming valleys like a herd of stegosaurus on steroids. Tobacco crops and cigars expertly hand rolled in their ever increasingly elastic tobacco leaves. Sanchong, our local guide, was perfect, with hat and cigar and a heartwarming love of his countryside. He showed us all the fruits and plants, the mother in law tree (the mother in laws seem to get a very bad press here) of two faces that can always predict a coming storm. He carefully explained that the male pine tree had three needles to the female’s two. I thought I’d throw in a bit of balance explaining the relative size of the male and female pine cones in Britain. Perhaps this was the first inkling our Cuban guide Juan Carlos had that he was in for a challenging two weeks. I try hard to manage expectations when he tells us we’ll visit the wall with prehistoric paintings, knowing well that this is being lost in translation.
After 3 nights and a final visit to some beautiful limestone caves, off we go to Saroa, valley of the stunning Orchidarium and hummingbirds.
I loved the octopus orchid and the miniature pineapples. And the pool.
Flight day to Guantanamo; we start to learn more about the impossibly difficult and spiky relationship between Cuba and the USA. Over the mountains via la Farola (the lamppost road of no lampposts) to be mobbed by locals selling bananas, cocoa butter and delicious chocolate (wish we’d bought more of that!). We see the devastation that hurricane Matthew brought last October. The Castillo hotel is magical, and the little town centre is, incredibly, pieced back together and re – painted in those vibrant colours.
So many highlights here: moved by the beautiful lady farmer living alone in the mountains, staggered by the cheerful smiling couple who have been together for 47 years and whose house on the ridge was just literally blown away. They’ve built a couple of shelters out of the palms, saved what they can, despite losing their pigs, and keep on serving coconut and coffee to the small numbers of tourists walking through the hills. Then the deserted paradise of a beach, swimming in the Atlantic and balancing across the Indiana Jones bridge, willing young men keen to help us across and not thinking to stay around for a small tip. Just happy to help.
We drop our small donations off at the local school, where the smart young people are unfazed by our visit and focus on their lesson. 7th highest literacy rate in the world, Uniforms are maroon for primary, beige for secondary and blue for high school. Impressive. Schools everywhere, even in the most remote farming valleys and mountain villages.
We learn about Cuban life: no private property sales, the house is passed down from parents to eldest daughter, there’s a housing shortage, population is ageing, child bearing actively encouraged, Cubans rarely travel abroad, though families are often divided as many left after the revolution.
It’s always ‘The triumph of the Revolution’ (not just the revolution) and finally we understand why President Obama, in his final days, closed the doors on Cubans. It was because Cuba needs it’s people, and the American dream for Cubans is often not such fun once they are there.
Back to our trip, 3 amazing days in Baracoa, and we’re off on the coach to Santiago de Cuba, bustling and gritty. A strategically placed fort and a perfectly situated hotel, right by the cathedral and that historic balcony where Fidel gave his victory speech. We learnt much more about conflict here, visit the Moncada barracks and are struck by the magnificence of the Plaza de la Revolucion (every city here seems to have one) and the jagged machetes symbolising conflict with differing aims, and the horse with both legs raised (rider died in battle). And Fidel’s ashes. We were moved, yet again. But we did smile at the changing of the guard, all of us being of the generation that could fully appreciate the ministry of silly walks.
Every stop has something interesting to see, including El Chobre, the church of the national saint in the heart of gold and copper mining, nearly every Cuban will visit once in their lifetime. Sunflowers 🌻 everywhere.
Onward to lovely Camaguay, via that memorable stop at Bataymo of great street art and the paint tube lamp posts. But probably most memorable for pizza and spaghetti, served together. Or not. Torrential rain forced us onto the bici taxis, and sight of the 10 Ramblers taxi convoy was a real joy.
The hotel Colon, (translated as Christopher Columbus, but it did make us smile), was magnificent, with it’s ships and balcony atrium. Enjoyed some of the best Cuban cuisine here, black beans as they should be, but couldn’t sit too long, we know cuban’s just don’t…plates scooped away the second you’re done, and just while away the hours in your rocking chair on the balcony….or dance away the night
Onwards to Trinidad, a town of contrasts, set in from to the mountains, baking hot, with a history of sugar plantations, slavery and smuggling. Off to the beach for salsa lessons in the disco, ready to show off our moves at the local Casa de La Trova. Probably just as well it was a crowded as could be! Swimming in the Caribbean this time and watching the sun go down. More mountain walks, waterfalls, a ride in a Russian truck where cars were never going to survive in one piece. Las Cuevas hotel, little concrete cabins scattered up the hillside and views of the distant beaches.
A visit to the Bay of Pigs, the museum and another take on what really happened and the order from Che to execute the 7 Cuban ex Batista fighters. We wonder, again, how much Kennedy really knew. We remind ourselves to google Operation Peter Pan, the 14000 children exiled to Florida at that time.
And on via Cienfuegos, possibly Cuba’s St Tropez: wide tree lined boulevards, shops, glorious open spaces and still that colour and bustle, dangling bare wires and crumbling balconies now conspicuous by their absence. Curiouser and curiouser…..
Finally, Havana and we say farewell to our wonderful Cuban guide Juan Carlos, who gave us such a deep insight to this fascinating country. We’re staying in what was a temporary home of Hemingway, (probably paying a little more than the $1.50 per night that he paid) the hotel Ambos Mundos, a real sense of history complete with ancient restored lift, concertina doors and stern, uniformed lift attendant. Rooftop dining, city tour. A real gem of a funky lounge bar cafe above the famous, but rather crowded, cafe Estoril in the Plaza Viega. A convoy of vintage cars to finish our trip – our 1929 red car …let the photos speak….
A truly memorable and rewarding trip, thanks to all of you.